CTO/CIO’s guide to retaining technology talent

As an executive recruiter I constantly hear what keeps executives up at night. Talent is top of mind. Not only hiring, but also retention, especially when it comes to technology talent. When searching to hire a CIO or CTO, companies are looking for “talent magnets.”

So how do technology executives retain top talent? How do they compete with the ecosystem of Silicon Valley? Compensation can work but isn’t a long term strategy, and many leaders work within organizations where position budgets are set with little wiggle room.

There is no doubt that each of these categories could be a post of their own. Perhaps that’s for another time.

I have asked many executives over the years as to how they retain top tech talent, which in many cases can apply to other functions as well. Some key themes that I have repeatedly heard:

Bigger than yourself: I have heard time and time again that the best way to retain technology talent is to have a vision, communicate it, and show the individuals under you how their contribution is part of something huge. Where they, as an individual, have an opportunity to make a real impact.

Information and communication: Along the same vein of sharing vision and strategy, many executives speak about how they keep their teams abreast of changes that are happening. Internal communication is key.

“No ego” hiring: Consistently technology executives reflect that they hire people smarter than themselves, not wanting to be the expert on their team. They give their people room to innovate, and make sure to get out of their way.

Support and success: Executives speak about putting their teams in positions to succeed. They have their back, protect them versus pass the blame, and give credit where credit is due. Equally important is goal setting: set a high bar, but not one that is unachievable, and people will feel empowered. It is important that expectations are clearly defined.

Cross-training: Professional development can come in many ways. Some executives rotate their direct reports, such as moving software engineering heads to run infrastructure, rounding out skill sets and grooming their next successor.

Coaching and career-pathing: Not all engineers are born people-leaders. Some organizations bring in leadership coaches to teach management skills to top engineering talent. Others have harnessed skilled technologists into career paths of Distinguished Engineers or Fellows, signaling that promotions and recognition don’t always have to come in the form of team size.

The importance of legacy and creating a learning culture: Many organizations are not startups, and have knowledgeable talent that has been with the company for 20, 30 years. Executives say that it is especially important to keep this subject matter expertise in-house while modernizing the platform and methodologies. Rather than having a legacy team and a separate innovation hub, some executives I have spoken with offer in-house universities and opportunities for all engineers to learn new technology together.

Location location location: There is no doubt that Silicon Valley is a special place, and for many it makes sense to be there. That being said, there has been a push to build out technology hubs in other locations from Dallas to Dublin. Not only is compensation and quality of life a bit more manageable, but executives have noted that their engineers won’t be as aggressively poached to work for the employer across the street.

Data: There is no doubt that we are in a data-driven culture, and this is evident in retention. Many organizations take regular employee surveys and share these findings with hiring managers. Others have automated internal mobility and talent management to some degree through data and analytics.

Recruiting: Clearly hiring the right people is a key first step to retention. Many CIOs and CTOs have said that they look for people who are fungible, thinking about the overall company versus a specific need, flexing on some hard skills for the right fit. They they would rather hire abilities and potential, and take some risk with skills. Equally important is making those tough calls on mis-hires.

Would love to open up this conversation. What has worked for you in terms of being that “talent magnet?”

Executive Recruiter | Author | www.distinguishedsearch.com